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Staggering malnutrition rates as quarter of Somalia population uprooted

Briefing notes

Staggering malnutrition rates as quarter of Somalia population uprooted

5 July 2011

The massive influx of Somali refugees into neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia continues unabated. Relentless violence compounded by devastating drought has forced more than 135,000 Somalis to flee so far this year. In June alone, 54,000 people fled across the two borders, three times the number of people who fled in May.

We estimate a quarter of Somalia's 7.5 million population is now either internally displaced or living outside the country as refugees. The drought is compounded by prevailing violence in southern and central parts of the country.

UNHCR is particularly disturbed by unprecedented levels of malnutrition among the new arrivals - especially among refugee children. More than 50 per cent of Somali children arriving in Ethiopia are seriously malnourished, while among those arriving to Kenya that rate is somewhat lower, but equally worrying - between 30 to 40 per cent.

"Knowing that children are dying along their journey to safety breaks our hearts." UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres said. "This is turning one of the world's worst humanitarian crises into a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions."

Prevailing violent conflict inside Somalia makes it difficult if not impossible for aid agencies to reach these people with assistance. Many families tell us they exhausted virtually all of their resources. Facing starvation, they walk for days, several weeks at times, through the desert, arriving in an appalling state of health.

Increasingly, we are hearing reports of children below the age of five dying of hunger and exhaustion during the journey. Tragically, many children are in such weak conditions when they finally arrive that they die within 24 hours despite the emergency care and therapeutic feeding they immediately receive.

In Dadaab refugee camp complex in Kenya, where refugees arrive at a rate of 1,400 per day, UNHCR and its partners are distributing high energy biscuits for instant calories and micronutrients. These are life-saving interventions. In addition to malnutrition, overcrowding of the camps, which already host more than 382,000 people, is a major concern.

In Ethiopia, refugees are registered at the border by authorities before being transferred to a UNHCR transit centre where they receive hot meals and go through health and nutrition screening. UNHCR recently opened a new camp at Kobe, the third in South-East Ethiopia, which is quickly reaching its capacity of 20,000.Together with Ethiopian authorities and in anticipation of a continued influx, we have identified a fourth site and discussions are underway about the location of the fifth camp.

As part of UNHCR response, a UNHCR-chartered Boeing 747 cargo plane is scheduled to land in Addis Ababa later today, delivering 100 tonnes of relief items from our emergency stockpile in Dubai. A land convoy of some 20 trucks loaded with thousands of tents and other aid left from Djibouti yesterday afternoon and is expected to reach the Ethiopian capital on Thursday. The High Commissioner is scheduled to visit the border areas with Somalia of Ethiopia and Kenya as well as the refugee camps later this week.

A UNHCR appeal covering the needs of protection, food, shelter, health services and other life-saving aid supplies is about to be issued. The needs are urgent and massive. In the light of the urgency of the situation, UNHCR not only calls on governments but also on individual donors and the private sector to urgently support our life-saving operations in Ethiopia and Kenya. To donate, please go to the UNHCR website:

There are now more than 750,000 Somali refugees living in the region, mostly in neighbouring Kenya (405,000), Yemen (187,000) and Ethiopia (110,000). Another 1.46 million are displaced within Somalia.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Nairobi, Kenya: Emmanuel Nyabera, on mobile +254 733 99 59 75
  • In Ethiopia: Kisut Gebre Egziabher, on mobile +25 19 11 20 89 01
  • In Geneva: Andrej Mahecic, on mobile +41 79 200 76 17